The High Cost Of Social Media

Now that popular trends are starting to backlash against the big social media platforms, one begins to wonder where it all will end. I mean, it seems that social media, as we know it, is living on borrowed time. There is something to be said for the almost-outmoded concept of “consumer trust.” When your users start distrusting you, it’s time for an effort to bring them back to the fold. But will that happen?

Of course, the big guns of the social networking world know that retention is the key goal. And that means that they must keep their services free. Back in 2008-2009, when the has-been “Ning” platform took off, there was a huge wave of interest, and tens of thousands flocked over and began joining and launching “Ning social networks.” Facebook was just beginning to tap the market. Had Ning played it smart, one can only imagine where they would have been now. Instead, they got greedy, began charging for their services, and the platform quickly fizzled out.

Facebook and Twitter have kept it smart because they’ve kept it free. But think of what that has cost the consumer. With more and more invasive advertising, and constantly evolving “changes of terms” to the already-Draconian privacy policy, users are in for a very bumpy ride as social networking adjusts itself to shifts in public perception and increasing legislative review of their policies and practices. Besides the need to better sugarcoat what they are offering their users, there is a financial drain which must be counter-weighed. The cost of all this hoopla is skyrocketing.

Meanwhile, the social media giants are doing their very best to make the user experience as unfriendly as possible, with ugly and confusing changes of layout, constantly juggling algorithms which hide content, and ads that seem to know exactly what you’ve been up when you’re not on their platform. But because of the innate vanity of us all, people refuse to close their accounts and move on. Well, I did. But I am an exception, and not the rule.

Judging by what is happening within the social networking jungle, one longs for an inhalation of clean mountain air; and one may well look wistfully back on the days of an ad-free, drama free internet, when users didn’t feel like they were being herded into an e-slaughterhouse for eventual disembowelment. True, the internet was slower back then. But was it really that much slower? There was less adware, less junkware, and less spyware, and social media was a mere dot on the horizon. But as it loomed larger, things changed for the worse.

Now there is a burgeoning cost that must be paid by you the consumer. How that cost will be levied is uncertain. But it won’t take long before you find out. We think that more aggressive advertising, and possibly subscription or “premium membership” services, will play a part. But the end result will be bad for the consumer. And it’s already bad enough.

Why AI Isn’t Right Around The Corner

What started with maverick software developers has actually become, during the last few years, a growing reality. Software systems can now be implemented to function in lieu of humans. While this sounds great (or not) on its face, there are a few key reasons why AI—that is, Artificial Intelligence, won’t be taking over your job any time soon.

Well, maybe it already has. If you are a checkout clerk, you may have witnessed an exponential growth in customer self-service stations at your workplace in recent months. That is not what I am talking about. When I reference AI, I am specifically talking about phone interface systems which function on behalf of a user or a business.

Having made that clear, let’s take a look at some of the systems that are already out there. Google Duplex is perhaps the most well known, simply because it’s Google. In one video, Sundar Pichai gives a jaw-dropping demonstration of the system showing what it can do for customers and businesses.. although he seems to admit that some calls don’t go as planned.

In another demo available on YouTube, Gridspace shows us what they can do with AI technology to create a seamless customer experience. While we are prepared to stand and applaud at the way everything ties together, again it becomes obvious that the representations are a bit fanciful.

Of course, we know that demos are meant to sell product. We get that. You always put your best foot forward when you are showing a demo; and whatever problems or glitches may lie back of your system are usually not discussed at that initial stage of presentation.

But there are reasons why companies are still very hesitant in investing in these systems. And it’s not simply the high cost of implementation. If you are a B2B or B2C company, you know that contact between your company and its clients and/or customers is simply one phase of its day-to-day business paradigm. When we consider someone calling in to purchase a product or request a service, we must also reckon on things such as data capture and data entry. And that’s where AI runs into kinks.

Not to even speak of things like data security (that is a totally different discussion), we all know how essential it is for the information tendered by the end-user/requester to be accurately captured by a system which purports to replace a live user. The videos make it look so easy. But we suspect that developers are not telling the entire story.

If I have to provide information relative to a transaction, what guarantee is there that the information will be correctly captured? After all, it’s just me and a computer program, and no one else is watching. Siri still doesn’t understand me when I tell her to turn off my flashlight. Are we really there yet?

Also, have we fully fleshed out issues like data entry? It is one thing to accurately capture the information. But how exactly will the system transcribe that information to third party software systems so that it can be internalized? AI developers must face the fact that virtually every organization uses multiple software systems to record and store data. Will AI cooperate efficiently with those systems? If so, how??

Suppose that the B2C company is using Oracle to store information regarding customers’ orders, and Salesforce to store internal notes. Suppose there is yet another program needed for tracking loyalty points. Can the AI software access all these systems simultaneously, and do all that is needed in one phone session, without any IT hiccups? Remember, there may be calls holding.

Until software developers take it to the next level, human users will be needed to transcribe data, because systems are still unable to do all that a live user is accustomed to do. They can’t, and we know they can’t. Even in a hybrid environment which used only some AI, data would still need to be gathered from the actual calls themselves, if only for quality assurance purposes; i.e., to make sure that AI was doing its job correctly. Hence, you can keep your call centers busy. If I have to listen to the same call to get the information, I may as well just take the call.

One solution, of course, would be to build “all-in-one” systems developed not only to take calls, but capture and store data as well. That would obviate the difficulty of dealing with multiple programs, and bring everything related to the transaction under one banner. Due to the nature of things, there will always be some amount of human interaction needed, because problems occur. Systems fail, data must be retrieved, glitches must be worked out, and what have you. But comprehensive software systems would at least float AI out of the novelty phase and into the mainstream.

Naturally, the more complex a company’s business operations, the more distant are its prospects of accepting AI as an alternative solution to an ‘analog’ work environment. Will there be storm signals before actual implementation? Of course. From the business side of things, company policies and operations would probably have to streamline, if not simplify, in order to accommodate themselves to the software. Thus, you would likely see a ‘dumbing down’ of the organization’s internal processes preparatory to any wholesale (or retail) AI invasion.

The conclusion, then, is clear. AI is still a way away. It’s in the offing. But it’s not right around the corner. Andrew Yang is still ahead of his time. Despite all the hype, I believe that much of the AI talk equates to “The Martians are coming!”.. because, after all, when a company develops a software system, they need to get it out there. Their business is not to present a realistic, but an ideal, scenario. And that is where we must stop and bring the conversation back down to earth. While we, too, look forward to the revolutionary changes that AI will bring, we must admit that, currently, HAL is still somewhere in space.

Even Bozos Can Advertise

In the early days of Internet, before Norton and McAfee took over your systems, customers could enjoy a relatively ad-free browsing experience. Back then, the internet seemed like a new frontier that was laden with hope and promise. True, the connections were slower. But systems and software developers made things work.

Now that those days are long behind us, we can sit back on our virtual porch-swings and reminisce about the good old days. The days that are gone forever.

Today’s media landscape is shockingly different from how it was then. For instance, it is harder now to create and run your own website. The tools are less accessible and harder to use. The need for “middle men” has increased. Then, too, you have to reckon on search engines which are profit-driven and could make your site harder to find. The “relevant” results are usually more generic and less search-specific than you’d like, and getting yourself to the top of the charts can be an uphill battle.

Did I mention profit? When people actually read newspapers, the advertising could be ignored by simply skimming or flipping past them. Now, however, ads must be as obtrusive as possible to get the browser’s attention. Most webmasters are savvy to the fact that ads equal revenue. And so part of your browsing experience must now include being bombarded with advertising.

Remember that site you used to enjoy browsing a few years back? You’ll know that the administrator got greedy when you start seeing cluster ads. Popups are more annoying, but generate more money. So they become increasingly common. And ad-designers know how to hide the ‘close’ function, so that time spent trying to clear the page equates to time spent viewing (and potentially considering the merits or demerits of) the aforesaid ad.

What is even more galling is when site owners refuse to sufficiently screen ads before they are allowed to appear on their website. The news outlets are most at fault in this department. In attempting to read an article, you may not only have to close out one or two annoying popups. You will likely have to view a poorly-taken image of a booger on someone’s finger, with the caption “Clean Your Nose In 60 Seconds With This Amazing Trick.”

Whatever this tells us, one thing is clear. It doesn’t matter how bad you are at designing an ad, provided you meet the threshold requirements and cough up the green. I mean, even if your ad merely shows a glass of water on a table with the caption “Reduced Interest Mortgages Start Now,” you can make it in today’s media world without even faking it. That’s saying something.

This means that even bozos can advertise and make money with minimal talent and (what is more amazing) minimal effort. And if they can do it, you and I can do it too. What it really takes is advertising that grabs people’s attention. What it takes is an idea that may or may not work, but which is sufficiently backed by advertising on any high-traffic website. You will make it work. All you need is enough money to launch your project. And ad money well spent will soon beget profit money, as anyone with market-sense already knows.

Quitting Facebook.. This Time For Good

Big Tech lied to us years ago when they predicted that the online experience would be as smooth as silk by 2020. With predictions of lightning-speed internet and and a mind-boggling array of customization and user-friendly controls, one would have thought that by now navigating the internet would have been been as easy as walking to the fridge and grabbing a coke.

But alas.. we did not count on the obfuscation factor. Obfuscation is when someone deliberately ruins a good thing through an excess of control, which equates to paranoiac micro-management of details that should be left to the consumer. If a consumer buys, or ‘buys into,’ a product, it is assumed (at least from an advertising perspective) that he or she will be allowed to use it. It is upon that basis that remote controls become the natural and obvious corollary of the television set. There is probably an equation that could be worked out affirming that the value of a product increases in direct proportion to its usability.

But in reality, there is no such thing. For whatever reason, computers have become slower while more complex, and systems have become more convoluted while less transparent.

In the case of Facebook, the final straw for me was when it finally forced users to opt for a new layout, which made it harder to navigate. We needed an instruction book, but all we got was boiler-plate. Instead of Facebook inventing a remote control and then handing it to the user, it created a complex labyrinth which plays out like an 80’s Nintendo game in which one must aimlessly wander in search of a way out. When you think you’ve finally found it, the door disappears. And then you usually end up giving up anyway, because.. well, you’ve got things to do.

What really peeves me about Facebook is the fact that one cannot control one’s own content. In other words, given my settings and preferences (which seem customizable enough), I am still unable to control what is considered ‘relevant.’ Not that I ever used Facebook a great deal. Some days I didn’t even sign on. But the reason for my lack of use was likely due to the progression of the app’s un-usability. Or maybe it was my not being tech-savvy enough.

I don’t mind ‘unfollowing’ people who hammer on about politics, their tailored-to-awe social lives, or even their baby pictures which they share profusely every day and which all look exactly the same. What I mind is that when I wanted to view something, I could never find it. Or when I did find it, and inadvertently clicked away for a moment, I couldn’t get back to it again. This is especially frustrating when one is trying to find relevant material in a discussion forum. If you find something that is relevant, you can’t just bookmark it and come back to it later. It may disappear, due to the shifting sands of algorithm-generated content.

Apart from obvious privacy concerns (which would require another article to discuss), the main drawback of Facebook, and which will finally prove their own undoing, is the continued obfuscation of the user experience. Many of us are busier today than we were ten or fifteen years ago. Life is proceeding at a faster pace, and communication outlets have increased and are constantly jockeying for a position in the world of spin. We are being absolutely bombarded with information. Filtration may sometimes be necessary.. but the controls need to be delegated back to consumers if you want them to go on using your product. If the companies keeps the controls, or dole them out too sparingly, we are back to square one again and must get off our butts every time we want to change the channel. If the trend continues, consumers will soon hit a brick wall of unilateralism. And that is a big word which means Tech is making all the decisions for you. No thanks, I’ll take my time and thought-investment elsewhere.